Supporters can still get their hands on a hard copy of last night's programme, while 1901 Club Members, Season Ticket Holders and MyAlbion+ Members can view the online version for free.
Please note that the programme notes below were written ahead of Wednesday night's Emirates FA Cup match at Leicester City.
We welcome the players, staff and officials of Aston Villa to the American Express Community Stadium for tonight's match, the first of two successive home Premier League games this month.
Villa are enjoying an excellent campaign under Dean Smith's leadership, recording some impressive results which have seen them occupy a top ten position in the Premier League for most of the season. We know we will need to be at the top of our game to repeat our very hard-fought 2-1 victory at Villa Park back in November, when goals from Danny Welbeck and Solly March saw us over the line.
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Talking of victories, it's hard to remember a more rewarding period for our club since we joined the Premier League back in 2017.
Three well-deserved wins over Leeds United at Elland Road, Tottenham Hotspur here at the Amex and, very memorably, our victory over champions, Liverpool, at Anfield – our first win there in almost 40 years – all followed a great Amex comeback against Wolverhampton Wanderers and a dominant performance at home to Fulham, both of which yielded a point for our efforts.
The wins and home draws were backed by a battling team performance at Turf Moor, where we secured another important point against Burnley, who themselves had picked up a memorable victory at Liverpool in January; and another very good display at Premier League leaders Manchester City, where we lost narrowly to an excellent Phil Foden goal, in between times.
In this same period, we also progressed to The FA Cup fifth round (where we were due to face Leicester City just after the print deadline for these programme notes), following a hard-fought win on penalties at Newport County, while our women's team, led by Hope Powell, recorded their best ever result in the Women's Super League with a 2-1 win away at leaders Chelsea.
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We have been saying for many weeks that our results and league position were not reflective of the quality of our performances, but we know only too well you don't always get what you deserve in football, so it's good to see Graham, his staff, and our players finally getting both the results and recognition for their hard work, resilience and belief in what they are doing, while our women’s team will undoubtedly be boosted by ending Chelsea’s 33-game unbeaten run in the WSL.
However, your most important result in football at this level is your next one, and nobody here is getting carried away with our recent successes. We have another tough game against a very good Villa team tonight, and we look forward to the visit of our old rivals from south London when Crystal Palace arrive here on Monday week. Meanwhile, Hope's team were due to host West Ham United on Wednesday night, looking to extend the current four-point gap we have over the Londoners and to mitigate their games in hand.
There is much work still to do for both our men's and women’s teams in what has been another challenging season off the pitch as well as on it, but we should all remember to take a moment to enjoy our teams' recent wins and performances because we know how hard they are to come by at the top level.
Sadly, despite some fantastic top-level football for everyone to enjoy in recent weeks, with the Premier League in particular throwing up so many exciting games, our sport has seen an alarming rise in the number of social media attacks on players, managers, match officials and other staff at football clubs up and down the country, including, I’m very sorry to say, at ours.
We have always respected the right of our fans, and, indeed, those of other clubs, to express their opinions about what we do and how we do it – even if those opinions are different to our own. Football is a game of opinions, and everyone is entitled to one, provided it is reasonable and respectful.
However, we have also been very clear that we operate a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discriminatory or personally abusive messages towards our players or staff, regardless of the platform or circumstances in which they appear.
Even during a period when our club has experienced some of the best results in our recent history, a small number of so-called 'fans' have felt the need to send or post abusive messages to the club, often, in the bravest of keyboard-warrior styles, anonymously. The need for some people to vent on social media in any or, in some cases, all of its forms, or, just as mindlessly, to write to us directly (with one or two people even using their work email addresses!) to abuse our players or staff is really hard to fathom at the best of times.
But when the team is playing well, such abuse – discriminatory or otherwise – is as brainless as it is unacceptable – and, with the chairman and board entirely committed to a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any kind of abuse of the club’s players and staff, we will not hesitate to take the strongest possible action, including, where appropriate, involving the police and pressing for prosecution.
Needless to say, those individuals we do identify – and rest assured we have taken, and will continue to take, all legal steps to identify abusive individuals even through anonymous postings or messages – will not be visiting the Amex or any other football stadium to see live football long after supporters are permitted to return to watch our matches.
Sadly, however, whilst clubs can issue stadium bans without refunds and, where individuals can be identified, we can refer the worst examples to the police for even stronger action, more needs to be done by the owners of social platforms of all kinds. The current apparent abdication of care, responsibility or swift action to remedy discriminatory or abusive behaviour is almost as bad as the abuse itself.
Racism is unacceptable — whether it’s online or on the football pitch.— DCMS (@DCMS) February 9, 2021
Our #OnlineHarms laws will tackle online abuse and hold social media companies to account.#SafeOnline #SaferInternetDay #SID2021 pic.twitter.com/dNUvBXNvSf
It was, therefore, heartening earlier this week to hear Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, confirming the Government will soon be introducing new laws to force the owners of social media platforms to take more responsibility for what is posted on their sites, and to start showing a far greater duty of care to individuals, including players, some of whom have suffered truly outrageous abuse in recent weeks.
Thankfully, by far the vast majority of Albion fans express their opinions reasonably and respectfully at all times, and most are quick to disassociate themselves from some of the nonsense we read or get to hear about on social media. Indeed, many fans report the worst of it to us or the authorities for action, and we’re certainly very grateful for that as we all have a part to play in bringing a halt to this nonsensical behaviour.
More positively, it’s very reassuring to see COVID infection levels and the terrible daily death toll beginning to fall, while those now vaccinated to some level has topped 12 million. We know that new variants of the virus may yet present more challenges for all of us but it feels as though we may be starting to see some light at the end of this very dark tunnel we have been in for so long.
It is, of course, still too early for us to expect to have fans back in our stadiums but, as excellent as the live TV coverage has been, we long for the day that news breaks of this happening again. We have all missed having fans watching games live and, as soon as we are advised it is safe for us to do so, we look forward to welcoming Albion and visiting fans back to the Amex. Let’s hope we can do so in this calendar year. In the meantime, thank you for your continued support. It is very much appreciated by all of us.
I want to record my best wishes in these notes to Glenn Murray, who has been a fantastic servant to our club and who has started so well at Chris Hughton's Nottingham Forest; and to Simon Rusk, who has left us to become Stockport County manager after a successful six years with our under-23 side, likewise spells coaching the under-18s and, indeed, our first team.
I also want to wish Solly March well who, having enjoyed such a great season with us, suffered an injury at Anfield. He underwent successful surgery in London last weekend and I'm sure he will come back just as strong despite this unwanted setback.
Enjoy the game!